COVID-19 and the Increasing Risk of Terrorism

There is no doubt that the global COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted nearly every aspect of life. From how we interact with one another to how we commute and work, people now are facing new realities that were not present just six months ago. Though the main concerns for many policymakers, government officials, and business leaders include managing the ongoing global health crisis and its economic ripple effects, other unanticipated risks may already be shaping up. These include a growing threat of extremism and terrorism.

The terms of extremism and terrorism have been used interchangeably. However, there is a crucial distinction between the terms: all terrorists are extremists, but not all extremists are terrorists. Despite the latter, a fine line separates extremists from the turning point of embracing violence—thus becoming terrorists. This is because extremism is generally regarded as “the vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and respect and tolerance for different faiths and beliefs” as per the 2015 UK’s Counter-Extremism Strategy. Furthermore, extremists may resort to terrorism to coerce governments and the general public to give in to their cause.

Over the past couple of decades, extremism and terrorism were mostly associated with religious causes, especially Islamic extremism, which present a persistent threat to numerous states. Yet, the current pandemic crisis may fuel such a risk and threats from other extremism categories. This includes the right-wing, left-wing, and single-issue extremism. While clearly articulating from now why and how the case is cumbersome, government and national security leaders can relate early warning signs to counter these threats.

Some arguments are claiming that terrorist groups are currently preoccupied with protecting their members against the coronavirus. However, different incidents that took place over April 2020 points to the direct opposite. In fact, in its mid-March al-Naba newsletter, ISIS urged its followers to launch attacks in times of crisis and show no mercy.

Earlier in April, 25 soldiers in Mali were killed in a jihadist attack. On the 14th of April, in an operation where one police officer killed, Egyptian security forces exchanged fire. They eliminated seven terrorists who were part of a cell planning to conduct attacks during the Easter holiday in Egypt. Also during mid-April, the Tunisian security authorities foiled a terrorist plan to spread the coronavirus to Tunisian security forces by coughing, sneezing, and spitting.

On the 21st of April 2020, it was announced that one of Europe’s most wanted terrorists and ISIS affiliate, Abdel Majed Abdel Bary, was recently arrested by the Spanish police in Almeria where he settled in during the coronavirus lockdown. Abdel Bary reached Spain via a boat, and local newspapers indicated that he intended to return to the UK. The return intentions of Abdel Bary – who was arrested with another two persons in his apartment – remains unclear. In France, on the 27th of April, a 29-year-old Frenchman was also arrested. The man, who was not identified, has slammed his car into police cars and motorcycles, injuring three officers. It was found that the man has pledged allegiance to ISIS in a letter found in his car. A couple of days later, in a statement by the Danish authorities on the 30th of April, the police in Denmark prevented a terrorist attack with a possible “militant Islamic motive.” The arrested man was already suspected of attempting to obtain ammunition and firearms. On the 30th of April, in one of the deadliest attacks that month, ten Egyptian army personnel were killed in a terrorist attack. The incident, which included an officer, a non-commissioned officer, and eight soldiers, had an improvised explosive device (IED) detonated under their armored vehicle in Bir El-Abd in North of Sinai.

Looking at Iraq, we can see a rise in ISIL (ISIS) operations over the past few months, wherein the first three months of 2020, 566 attacks were conducted by the group in Iraq. Not only that, the group’s attacks have intensified, but the group appears to be strengthening. Given their recent attacks in Syria and Iraq, it is argued that the current pandemic has already demonstrated how durable and resilient ISIS ais In addition to that, other armed extremist groups are scaling up their targeted attacks. This can be evident by the recent assassination of Hisham al Hashimi, 47, who was fatally shot outside his house in Baghdad. Hisham was among the world’s leading security experts on ISIS and other armed groups. Iraqi officials indicated that Hisham received threats recently from Iran backed militias.

Because of the abovementioned incidents – even if they may appear minor and sporadic to some security strategists – it is worth noting that terrorist groups may take advantage of the global focus of countering the pandemic and launch attacks. Furthermore, terrorist groups may view the global pandemic crisis as an opportunity to win more recruits, supporters, sympathizers, and then strike harder than before should the right moment be presented. In this regards, Al-Qaeda suggested in its statement on the 30th of March, that non-Muslims use their time in quarantine to learn about Islam. In addition, these groups have never failed to exploit social media to advance their cause and propaganda. That said, as the pandemic continues, people are spending more time online, terrorist groups are likely to amplify their utilization of social media to further spread their dangerous rhetoric along with widely used hashtags of the terms: #Coronavirus, #COVID2019 or #COVID19 to ensure a wider audience reach for their social media posts.

Not only that, terrorist groups may use the time of the pandemic crisis to propagate their ideology or launch attacks but also use the time to reinforce their bases to remerge in a more potent form after the pandemic crisis. This can be specifically true given that most terrorist groups are taking some of the African and Middle Eastern countries like Libya, Chad, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and others as their hubs and operational base. Most of these nations are developing countries, so it is possible that while these nations’ authorities and security forces are focusing their capabilities on curbing the coronavirus spread, that terrorist groups would utilize such a window period to harness their abilities. This is particularly evident from the very recent series of terrorist attacks launched by ISIS in Syria and Iraq, killing dozens of soldiers. The attacks probably took advantage of the local authorities scaling back the number of troops on the ground due to the coronavirus pandemic. A similar expansionary approach is also seen by jihadists in the Sahel region. Thus, further confirming the threat resurgence of organized terrorist groups as a result of the pandemic crisis.

Although the terrorism threat appears to be relatively regional, it requires intergovernmental and a multinational collective counterterrorism approach. With many of the terrorist groups and affiliates adopting a horizontal structure, one group in one country might be influencing the actions of other groups in many other different countries. Not to forget lone wolf terrorism, which would only take the individual perpetrator to be radicalized by merely reading and following the propaganda and extremist ideologies widely available online.

While intergovernmental counterterrorism frameworks, cooperation, and efforts already exist, the current pandemic crisis still presents an unprecedented challenge to many countries. This includes the redirection of security forces and militaries’ actions in curbing the pandemic spread, implementing lockdowns, curfews, regulating borders entry, and supporting the national overwhelmed healthcare authorities. Though the latter is important to ensure the general public safety, security bodies mustn’t lose their focus on countering terrorism, reinforcing border security, and stepping up surveillance and intelligence activities to anticipate any risks or terrorism plots. Additionally, extremist – but nonviolent – groups should be closely monitored during the pandemic and economic crisis to counter how such groups might use the pandemic to advance their propaganda and gain more sympathy from the general public. This includes right-wing, left-wing, and single-issue extremism groups such as climate activists who turn to terrorism.

Furthermore, as the economic recession builds up, different countries may implement spending cuts and reduce budgets dedicated to national security, intelligence, military, and law enforcement concerning various security programs, including counterterrorism. Accordingly, this should not be the case at all. Even if the economic recession is currently taking its toll on all sectors, government spending, and budgets dedicated to national security, intelligence, military, and law enforcement, counterterrorism efforts should not be reduced. As extremists and terrorist groups are likely to exploit the coronavirus pandemic and post-pandemic economic crisis for their benefit and incite violence, national governments should not undermine such a dormant yet imminent threat while tackling the economic consequences of the pandemic crisis. In this respect, military, national security, intelligence, and law enforcement bodies across the world should increase, and hone their counterterrorism capabilities, intelligence sharing, and international cooperation.

Mohamed ELDoh

Mohamed ELDoh is a business development and consulting professional in the security and defense sector. Mohamed holds an MBA from the EU Business School, an Advanced Certificate in Terrorism Studies from the University of St Andrews, and is a doctoral candidate at the Grenoble École de Management, where he researches strategy and online behavior.

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